“The east coast of China has to be holding some surf.” That’s what we were thinking in the planning stages for this project, looking at a map of the coast from the chilly waters in the north to the tropical beaches of Hainan Island in the south. While facing east and out of the path of the major groundswell patterns that cross the Pacific Ocean, the thousands of miles of coastline had be holding a few set-ups open to seasonal typhoons and local windswell.
China IS massive, and after a long period of hibernation, the Dragon is now awake and exerting its influence on the world. We were in China to find and ride new waves, but also to see what the New China was all about. Having already been to Hainan several years previously, the island has since become well-known and even a little crowded with visiting Japanese and expat surfers from Hong Kong, so we turned our sights to the areas of the coast that have seen few, if any surfers.
Our jetlagged group included Erwan Simon from France, Rico Bayle from France, Francesco Pallatella from Italy, Xavier Leroy from France, and Mandarin speaker Nik Zanella from Italy. We met in Shanghai, and the next morning drove through the countryside to the ferry port to catch the boat to a group of offshore islands. These islands are a former military outpost of empty north and south facing beaches, now slated to become a resort destination with massive hotels, casinos, and thousands of timeshare units on the drawing board. For now though, they continue to be much as they have been for decades: sleepy outposts of bicycle-riding farmers and fishermen, recently demilitarized, with few visitors outside of the summer months and even fewer “lao wai” (foreigners) at any time of year.
The island was warm and bright in the autumn sun, and nearly deserted. All summer visitors from Shanghai have left by October, and there were few tourists. After finding a decent, empty, and thanks to our Mandarin speakers; quite cheap hotel near the beach, we drove straight to the nearest potential spot to find empty Chinese perfection . . . and were confronted with windy beachbreak, not too inviting. As the island has many bays and beaches facing many directions, it was a matter of figuring out the wind and swell patterns combined with some driving skill on the steep and narrow roads to find and access the better quality waves on offer.
Pagoda Beach was five minutes drive from our place, and proved to be a reliable source of waves. An open beachbreak facing northeast, the spot was a sandbar sheltered from the wind by a large rock with a concrete pagoda on top where local couples went to have a private moment, judging from the condom wrappers scattered on the ground nearby. The first two visits saw a local farmer attempting to block access to the beach, and making the universal hand gestures for money. He was brushed aside by Rico and did not appear again, although it would not be the last time we would see this kind of money for beach access thing in China.
We gradually covered the entire island in our forays for surf, and found a special cove on the far end of the island. Open to the north, the villagers said they had never seen a foreigner there, although a few Shanghai visitors make it that far in the summer. They gawked like yokels as Erwan and Francesco paddled out, and the conversation Nik was having in Mandarin revealed they received waves up to three meters (10 ft) in the winter months, big enough that the fishermen did not go out in their boats, and the handmade rock walls of local stone required maintenance to withstand the onslaught.
They were curious and appreciative, and kind enough to bring several buckets of fresh water down to the beach for their new heroes to have a rinse when they came out of the water at dusk. The village itself had a beautiful, haunted ambience like a Chinese Cornwall, and was nearly deserted as many of the younger people have migrated to booming Shanghai for jobs. As well as having a solid beachbreak, the village would be a perfect location to film a gruesome horror movie starring a crazed foreign surfer-lunatic, abusing the hospitality of the locals by running amok and slaying innocent Chinese maidens among the narrow lanes, ancient stone cottages, and steep hills of the cove.